Healing an Injured Phrase


From Rabbi Avi Shafran, Am Echad Resources

“One of the 613 Mitzvot is ‘Tikkun Olam,’ to heal or repair the world,” declares the Social Action Committee of a Massachusetts temple. The assertion is characteristic of the widespread ignorance these days about Jewish basics, not to mention the misrepresentation of the term tikkun olam.

There are indeed 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah, but none of them is tikkun olam – a phrase that, of late, is as frequently invoked (Google reports 226,000 references) as it is erroneously defined.

The term has its roots in the Mishna, the earliest Talmudic source-material, where it is employed as the philosophical principle behind a number of rabbinic enactments intended to avoid social problems. For example, the institution of a legal mechanism that can circumvent the sabbatical year’s automatic cancellation of debts is justified by the concept of tikkun olam. As is the requirement that divorce documents include the signatures of the witnesses. Similarly, whenever tikkun olam is invoked by the Talmud, it refers to actions taken by rabbinic authorities to address communal concerns.

The phrase also has an eschatological meaning, as in “litakein olam bi’mal’chut Sha-dai” (“to repair the world through the kingdom of G-d”) clause in the Aleinu declaration recited at the end of every Jewish prayer service. There it refers to the end-point of human history, when idolatries will disappear from earth and “every knee will bend to You” and all nations “will give honor to the glory of Your name.”

And then there is tikkun olam’s meaning in Jewish mystical literature, where it is used to refer to the cosmically redemptive power of personal actions, in particular the performance of mitzvot, both ethical and ritual.

In recent years, though, the term has been widely employed by a number of Jewish groups and individuals in a novel way, made to mean the embrace of any of a variety of social, political or environmental causes – including, as one, tikkunolam.com, asserts, arms control, reproductive rights and campaign reform. Gay and lesbian rights are another item on that group’s list, although the only quote from Leviticus cited is “Love thy neighbor as yourself.” (Other pertinent verses in that book seem to have been overlooked.)

Redefinition of time-honored Jewish words and concepts, unfortunately, is nothing new. “Torah” and “mitzvah” and “halacha” (Jewish religious law) and “observance” have all fallen victim to Jewish Newspeak. But there is a particular irony to the trendy twisting of tikkun olam to refer to the issue du jour of the politically progressive.

It stems from yet another legitimate employment of the term, as cited by Maimonides in his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah (or Yad Hachazaka).

Near the end of that 14-volume compendium of halacha, the revered 12th century Jewish luminary included several chapters of laws concerning Jewish kings. In the final law of the third chapter of that section, he writes:

“[In] any case where someone takes human lives without clear proof [of a capital offense] or the issuance of a warning, or even on the strength of a single witness [as two are required in a Jewish court], or where a person hates someone and kills him [seemingly] by accident, a king is permitted to execute [the unjustified taker of life] in order to repair the world [“li’taken ha’olam”] according to the needs of the time… to strike fear and shatter the strength [literally, “break the hand”] of the world’s perpetrators of evil.”

And so, Maimonides informs us, there is yet another meaning to tikkun olam, the authorization of a nation’s leader to do whatever is necessary, “according to the needs of the time” – even suspend the ordinary rules of evidence in capital cases – to preserve the security of his society from those who seek to disrupt it.

No Jewish king exists today but, still – in the spirit of liberal-mindedness – we might engage in a little “expansion of definition” ourselves and consider how the Maimonidean concept of tikkun olam might pertain to our own society, leaders and times.

Reasonably, it would seem to advocate the right, in fact the responsibility, of the chief executive of a country threatened by murderous elements to take strong and unusual action to undermine those enemies of civilized society – even if some personal rights may be compromised in the process.

So, interestingly, the concept of tikkun olam would seem to argue most eloquently today for things like, say, the imprisonment of enemy combatants, secret wiretaps and surveillance of citizens.

It might not please those who enjoy waving tikkun olam like a flag, but the concept, accurately applied, would seem to more heartily support the Patriot Act than a ban on Alaskan oil drilling.

You may also like...

9 years 8 months ago

Rabbi Shafran is correct. Tikkun Olam is not in and of itself a mitzvah. The liberal use of “tikkun olam” can be reduced to the pursuit of justice instead. I looked up the section on Luria’s use of the phrase tikkun in Scholem and found the interesting statements that Luria finds the most important expression of tikkun olam to be prayer, kavanah, and the unification of the name of G-d. That said, DovBear is 100% right.

9 years 8 months ago

with all the comments here on chaim cohen’s post and the nature of what rabbi shafran wrote about, i’m really surprised no one picked up on one particularly ironic phrase: “all branches of Judaism believe themselves to be the carrier of the true traditions of our forefathers.”

i wholeheartedly respect the pride our fellow jews have for upholding the traditions of their forefathers. we all want to be in sync with what came before and this is part of what makes klal yisrael so unique – the spiritual magnet implanted within each neshama that yearns to be connected just won’t let go that easily. and while time marches on and we find ourselves in new worlds within each successive generation, we are challenged to find meaning within new scenarios and changing realities…the truth is that anyone who wants to believe that they can remake judaism, as as we each travel down our separate paths, and refashion it in their own image was granted the right to this belief by virtue of free will (bechira). but engaging in this pursuit, and then calling myself a “carrier of the true traditions of our forefathers” would mark me as either really misinformed about the original material, or perhaps really deluded. our forefathers, as a united whole, were orthodox. yes, of course there were always those whose observance slipped from the optimal (just as “even” none of us – the orthodox today – are perfect), but they were still orthodox. (see lawrence kelemen’s excellent piece re this in jewish action summer 1999 entitled TRACING THE TREE OF LIFE)..)

“halacha” (law), “mesora” (tradition) and “emes” (truth), like “tikun olam”, actually have real meanings. they are not subjective terms. “tikkun olam” begins with “tikkun atzmi” – changing myself. only once i’ve effected change within myself can i hope for change in the larger world around me. remaking or reinventing torah concepts around what i want to see happen – changing the standards, the qualifiers, and the rules – just doesn’t cut it, unfortunately. and doing this and then thinking we’re carrying on the traditions of our forefathers – well…

9 years 8 months ago

“So when you hear someone refer to a cheeseburger or a ham sandwich as “treyf”, do you rebuke them for redefining treyfah?”

No, but I probably should, considering how few people seem to know the origin of the word. “Not kosher” suffices just fine.


9 years 8 months ago

Shafran’s objection is one of semantics. Perhaps he is right that saving the enviroment is not a “tikun olam” in the original sense, but so what? That’s not an argument against saving the enviroment. It’s just an argument for calling it something else, which is a very trivial argument indeed.

Furthermore, where is his argument against the Kabbalists of Sefad? According to the Mishna and the bit of Maimonides he cites tikun olam means to protect the world from evil, but the Kabbalists took it to mean imbuing the world with holiness. These aren’t the same thing.

Seth Gordon
9 years 8 months ago

[DMZ:] Improving the world is indeed a wonderful Kiddush Hashem. Distorting traditional Jewish thought and history (which is what casually redefining Tikkun Olam is) is not.

So when you hear someone refer to a cheeseburger or a ham sandwich as “treyf”, do you rebuke them for redefining treyfah?